The calm after the storm

Just before the tsunami, Ian Birrell was enjoying an idyllic holiday in Sri Lanka. Three months on, he returns to find an island hoping for a tourism revival

The two elderly ladies, with their blue rinses and bubble-perms, were explaining how they ended up going on holiday to Sri Lanka. "I have trouble sleeping at night," said one, gathering her bags as she prepared to leave the aircraft. "I was listening to the radio when I heard someone saying that they were desperate for tourists to return after the tsunami. So the next day we booked our holiday and here we are."

The two elderly ladies, with their blue rinses and bubble-perms, were explaining how they ended up going on holiday to Sri Lanka. "I have trouble sleeping at night," said one, gathering her bags as she prepared to leave the aircraft. "I was listening to the radio when I heard someone saying that they were desperate for tourists to return after the tsunami. So the next day we booked our holiday and here we are."

Had they been before, their neighbour enquired? "No - but we went to Grenada shortly after it was hit by a hurricane and had a wonderful time. We know what to expect." Disaster junkies come in all shapes and sizes, I thought to myself, before discovering that the pair were taking advantage of a two-for-the-price-of-one deal, part of a desperate effort to kick-start tourism, the fourth most important industry on the island and a crucial source of foreign exchange.

Despite these efforts, holidaymakers remain few and far between in the wake of the tsunami that left more than 31,000 dead and close to one million of Sri Lanka's inhabitants homeless. The hotels - briefly filled with journalists and relief workers - are now empty; the tuk-tuks stand idle; the beaches are deserted. Although the influx of aid into this impoverished country caused the rupee to strengthen, everywhere there is talk of the "second tsunami" - the economic devastation caused by the lack of tourists.

The Boxing Day disaster could not have come at a worst time for Sri Lanka. Following a cease-fire with the Tamil Tiger rebels, tourism was booming on an island able to offer a gentle taste of exotica and with enough beaches, ruins, railways and wildlife to attract most types of holidaymaker. A record 565,000 tourists visited the island last year, including, in December, my family. Following a well-worn trail, we took the dawn train from Colombo to see the temples of Kandy, enjoyed bath time at the Pinnawala elephant orphanage, went scuba-diving in Hikkaduwa and surfing in Mirissa. We were practically the first guests at the wonderful new Galle Fort Hotel, and during four days there saw the Aman hotel group open one of its opulent outposts in the town, along with a branch of one of Colombo's smartest shops. Six days later, the tsunami struck.

There were two reasons for my going back. First, to try to track down people I had spent time with in December, and discover how they were faring. And second, to determine if tourists should really return. Coincidentally, reading The Independent on the flight out, I came across a letter from a reader who had just returned from a holiday there and was urging others to follow suit. "Far better than remote charitable giving would be the active presence of tourists providing employment and a boost to...local self-confidence," he wrote.

I thought of that letter as I drove along the coast road towards the backpackers' resort of Hikkaduwa, the original hippy hang-out in Sri Lanka. My driver was gleefully recounting lurid and rather dubious tales of drugs and wife-swapping in the town as he weaved in and out of the traffic. Looking out of the window, the devastation to begin with was less than I imagined, although somehow everything looked very different. It took me a while to put my finger on it: the landscape was like Africa, with red soil everywhere, rather than the lush green scenery of before, because the salt water had killed off so much of the low-lying flora.

Then we hit Peraliya, a few kilometres from our destination. It was here that an express train was swept aside by the waves, killing more than 2,000 people, many of whom had climbed on for safety as the waters rushed in. Less than a dozen of the 420 homes in the village withstood the torrent. Today it is a community of donated tents and temporary wooden homes little better than the sheds found in British gardens. Bodies are still turning up - the day before, farmers three kilometres inland had found 36 in their paddy fields.

Four of the battered ochre carriages are still there, and the government plans to create a memorial here to victims of the tsunami. There were several minibuses filled with day-trippers parked nearby, pop music blaring from one. People chatted and ate ice cream as they sauntered down to the track, seemingly oblivious to the devastation all around them. Teenagers joked and jostled each other. A sign in Sinhalese asked people not to clamber on to the train wreckage.

It felt horribly voyeuristic. I talked to some village kids and bought them mango ice creams. Behind the ice cream vendor, a couple quietly washed their baby with water taken from a plastic butt - most wells are still ruined by the salt water. I wandered back to the car as a train hurtled along the new track, partially rebuilt by US marines. A man came up and showed me where his house had been before, asking for money. A woman, armed with photographs of her family and a well-rehearsed story, told me about her losses.

It was dark by the time I got to Galle, my destination for the night, and the Lighthouse Hotel and Spa was throbbing. Dozens of well-dressed people in suits and silk saris were mingling around the reception. I joined them, feeling a bit under-dressed in my T-shirt and shorts, only to discover that I had joined a wedding party by mistake.

Of the 63 rooms, only seven were occupied - and none by tourists. I found the bar and ordered a Lion beer. Three aid workers played pool while Ram, the barman, told me that his father had died in the tsunami and missed the birth of his first grandchild by six weeks. Was this a story to earn bigger tips, I wondered guiltily? I gave him a huge tip anyway, and later learned he was telling the truth.

Outside, the sea crashed on to the rocks. I wandered down to the beach, sand crabs scurrying away as I plodded along. The lights from fishing boats could be seen on the horizon where they merged with stars, and the hotel staff had lit flares on the rocks. It was a beautiful scene, were it not for the rows of blue tents behind the beach - essentially, a small refugee camp.

Back in the hotel, a member of staff asked if I was a journalist, so I told him I was writing a travel article. "I hope that will bring a few people back here, because we're all struggling, but I think people are scared of another tsunami."

Not scared, I replied - apprehensive about enjoying holidays among people trying to rebuild their homes and their lives. "I understand," he said, "but the quicker the foreigners return, the quicker we can rebuild our homes and get out of the tents." This was a sentiment I heard again and again.

Although Galle was badly hit, it is getting back on its feet much quicker than many other areas. The Dutch fort, a World Heritage Site, emerged pretty unscathed thanks to its 17th-century fortifications. But even here I came across a broken boat on a side street. If I had not known that rows of tailors' shops had vanished, the town centre would have looked almost normal. But rubble lies everywhere, some suburbs are in a terrible mess, and the cricket pitch, one of the world's most scenic sports arenas, houses homeless families.

The tragedy is always near the surface. I went back to the local Buddhist temple to join Karl and Chris, owners of the Galle Fort Hotel, who were giving their weekly English class to local children. Thankfully, the same faces were there as in December, with the same shy giggles and the same impeccable English. But when the phrase "unhappy time" came up, the children chorused "tsunami". A small but telling example of a people who don't like to waste time showing emotion.

The next morning I headed to Hikkaduwa, in search of Jayantha Lokuliyana, a 39-year-old father of four and owner of Dive Sites Lanka, whom I met in December. After training in the Maldives he set up his own dive centre, which was doing so well that he had been about to open his second outlet further down the coast.

We went off in his boat for a couple of dives. The sun hammered down as we chugged out to sea and talked about life after the tsunami. His boats and clients had survived, Jayantha said, but the waters caused nearly £7,000 damage to his equipment when they washed into his shop. He laughed at the idea that anything in Sri Lanka might be insured.

And since then? I was only the fifth tourist he had taken out in over two months and he was borrowing money to find the 4,000 rupees (£20) a day he needed to cover running costs and pay his six staff. He shrugged when I asked how he was surviving and feeding his family. Despite the hardship, he looked shocked at the suggestion he might lay people off, a reflection of communal values that I * * came across repeatedly and are so at odds with those of wealthier nations. The only place I found that had laid off staff was a Japanese-owned hotel, and even here the workers were job-sharing and using holiday entitlements to soften the blow.

I was surprised to find a thunderstorm raging when I surfaced from my second dive. After saying goodbye to Jayantha - who was so pleased to take someone out that he tried to charge me only 4,000 (£22) rupees for my morning's diving - I ate grilled fish and crab while watching turtles surfacing in the waves by the shore. They were waiting to lay their eggs on the beach that night.

I travelled an hour down the coast to Mirissa. On my previous visit, this beautiful little resort had reminded me of Goa before the charter flights started up, with its perfect sweep of palm-fringed golden sand and Bob Marley thumping out from scruffy beach-side cafés.

The beach was still perfect. But now it was fringed by a bank of rubble under the palm trees. The cafés were all gone, along with many of the homes. I found Harsha, the owner of my favourite one, rebuilding the shattered remains of his red, green and gold building, despite a visit that morning by government inspectors who ordered him to stop work, as it was within the controversial 100m buffer zone. Like so many other people I met, he was remarkably upbeat in the face of adversity.

I also found my first two tourists. I thought I had discovered one earlier in the day in Unawatuna, but she turned out to have been injured in the tsunami and had returned once her wounds had healed to carry out aid work. "I don't think you'll find any tourists here," she sneered, when I made the mistake of asking if she was on holiday.

But this pair in Mirissa, a mother and daughter from Berlin, were enjoying a three-week break at an Ayurvedic spa. As they emerged from the waves, they told me they were having a ball. "We made donations after the disaster, but we checked and everyone said we should come. And we are very glad we did. It might not be the time to come for that perfect beach holiday, but there is so much to do and people seem so pleased we are here," said Marianne, the mother.

They were not alone. I later came across British bird-watchers, a Swiss honeymoon couple, and a Danish family. Some had been to Sri Lanka before and came back to offer assistance, either with money, gifts or action.I heard of two medics from Britain who created a medical unit at the Galle orphanage, where 40 people were washed away, during their vacation. Another Briton bought a tuk-tuk for a driver he had met before; a very generous act, but one wonders about the corrosive nature of such spontaneous direct actions, which caused jealousies among less-fortunate drivers.

And there is, of course, much more to Sri Lanka than just its coast. After leaving Galle, I went to the Sinharaja rainforest. Driving there, through gorgeous scenery that was verdant once again, I watched people picking lowland tea, threshing rice and digging for gems in the fields. The destruction of the coastal regions seemed a world away.

I was staying at the Boulder Garden hotel, created around a crop of gigantic rocks on a hillside that jutted out over a small swimming-pool and dining area. Inevitably, there were no other guests, so a manager offered to take me into town on his tuk-tuk to find a bar.

Somehow, we ended up instead at a country circus. There was a tiny ring, and the seats were strips of wood lashed to shaky tripods that bounced alarmingly when anyone sat down. The first couple of acts were not encouraging - a plump woman in pink socks balancing candles on her head while lying on a table, then a bored looking woman juggling three empty Fanta bottles. But after that it was superb, especially the unicycle and trapeze acts. Best of all was a serious looking man who stood on a spindle, tied his bootlaces together and then span round at high speed for a minute or two. It could prove a big hit at the Edinburgh Festival, although I doubt the health and safety police would permit the rickety equipment.

The rainforest, despite the best efforts of several leeches feasting on my legs, provided a glorious day's walking. The bird life was spectacular, with several endemic species including the world-renowned blue magpie. I preferred watching the purple-faced leaf monkeys fooling around in the tree-tops, and the giant squirrels lazing around on lower branches, looking like creatures created for a children's cartoon with their pointed faces and huge bushy tails.

So should tourists return? Even Sri Lankans who have suffered great losses are desperate to see them back, and the welcome is as warm as ever. Indeed, the international response to the tsunami has probably made it even warmer. The interior, while suffering economically almost as much as the wrecked coastal areas, was untouched, meaning that even sites such as the astonishing 1,500-year-old Sigiriya rock fortress have few visitors at present. And while you might not want to spend two weeks on the beach, you can still enjoy a swim.

Above all there is something moving about the way that this blessed and blighted country is dealing with its latest crisis. I was constantly told amazing - and often heart-rending - personal stories about the tsunami. I became involved in intense discussions about national and global politics and was invited into people's homes for cups of tea. But, apart from around the wrecked train at Peraliya, few people were looking for money, despite the scale of the tragedy. Mostly, it was that mixture of curiosity and friendliness so familiar to anyone who has visited the Indian subcontinent.

Just before leaving the coast, I stopped to take a photograph of a tent emblazoned with anti-government messages. As so often, I ended up in conversation with a young man who invited me to meet his family. As he showed me round his house, with its walls cracked and garden destroyed, he told me his father, an army sergeant, had died in the tsunami. A photograph of him, garlanded in white flowers, was in the corner of a sparsely-decorated room.

"We used to be prosperous, but now we have nothing," he told me, waking his startled younger brother who was asleep on a bed. He explained that his mother did not work and that he was studying for A-levels in commerce. He offered me tea, and turned out to be a very bright 19-year-old called Kushil. After talking for a while, and meeting several neighbours, I said I had to leave. As we shook hands, he insisted that my family should stay in his home when we returned to Sri Lanka. Feeling rather humbled, I asked if there was anything I could do to help his family. He looked shocked at the suggestion, and said no. I tried again. After a long pause, he said that if I wanted I could send him an accountancy book to help with his studies.

Driving back to Colombo, I reflected that for any Western person visiting a Third World country, there were issues to confront when lying on beaches amid intense poverty and exploitation. These are multiplied ten-fold when a country like Sri Lanka has suffered such a huge tragedy. But ultimately, you are helping its economy and self-respect return to normality. And you are left more inspired than by a week drinking cocktails on the beach.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Ian Birrell travelled as a guest of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board (020-7930 2627; www.srilankatourism.org) and SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2001; www.sri-lankan.aero) - the only airline flying direct to Sri Lanka from the UK. Indirect services are available on other airlines, such as Qatar Airways via Doha. Colours of Sri Lanka (020-8343 3446; www.partner-shiptravel.co.uk) offers a range of holidays to Sri Lanka.

STAYING THERE

Galle Fort Hotel (00 94 91 223 2870; www.gallefort-hotel.com): doubles from $173 (£91). Lighthouse Hotel & Spa (00 94 91 222 3744; www.jet-wing.net/lighthouse) in Galle offers doubles from $200 (£105). Boulder Garden Hotel (00 94 45 22 55 812) in Kalawana offers doubles from $255 (£134). The Villa Rosa (00 94 81 221 5556; www.villarosa-kandy.com) in Kandy offers doubles from $108 (£57).

The Apa Villa in Colombo (00 94 11 267 1817; www.villa-srilanka.com) offers doubles from $115 (£61). All these rates include breakfast.

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